The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy

by Daniel A. Kaufman

My article on Philosophy’s past and future in the current issue of Philosophy Now.







20 responses to “The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy”

  1. davidlduffy

    On Amazon’s “Best Sellers in 98477010 – Nonfiction” currently in the top 20:
    1. Plato Republic
    2. The Tao of Pooh
    3. Foucault Discipline and Punish
    6. Said Orientalism
    11. Klein Shock Doctrine – the rise of disaster capitalism
    13. Foucault Reader
    14. Taleb. The Black Swan
    19. Elui. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

    I have no idea if that is students buying set texts or what. It’s true I don’t see any recent books from professional philosophers.

  2. Animal Symbolicum

    Wonderful essay, Professor Kaufmann. As usual, I find myself nodding along with you at the crucial points.

    I too am exasperated at the way professional philosophy nowadays fancies itself scientific. I have trouble articulating to fellow professionals what I (think I) am registering when I register an important difference between the sort of intellectual achievement science properly aims for and the sort philosophy properly aims for. So I appreciate your drawing the distinction as between “acquiring knowledge” and “developing apt points of view.”

    I struggle to explain — putting things your way — what “acquiring knowledge” amounts to and exactly how it differs from “developing an apt point of view.” So let me just pose the following questions, questions from one who is in agreement with you that there is a often-overlooked and profoundly important difference between philosophy and science:

    In what sense is developing (and perhaps expressing in words and publishing) an apt point of view *not* an acquisition of knowledge? Aptness for what? Why shouldn’t achieving an apt point of view of something be characterized as achieving knowledge of that something?

    Thanks, again.

  3. Animal Symbolicum

    I don’t know how that extra “n” slipped in there at the end of your last name. Apologies!

  4. s. wallerstein

    No philosophical work written in the last 100 years has had the social or political effect that Locke, Rousseau, Mill and let’s add Marx had because in the last 100 years there has been an immense amount of sociological, social psychological and political science empirical research that makes arm chair speculation about politics and about society less credible.

    No one over age 17 today would say, as Rousseau did, that “man is born free, but is everywhere in chains”. It’s a broad, armchair generalization. There is domination everywhere, to be sure, but there is a hell of a lot less in Denmark than in Saudi Arabia.

    Let’s take one work that could be considered philosophy and which has had a great impact in the last 100 and even 50 years, The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir. That work contains chapters on anthropology, biology and the history of woman’s situation. Simone de Beauvoir read up on all the empirical evidence available about woman’s situation before writing the book.

    Today if a philosopher is well grounded in the social sciences or works together with social scientists, he or she could have the same impact as de Beauvoir has had. But pure armchair speculation about social reality seems pointless today.

  5. Mike Valdman

    Nice essay. A few years ago I would have agreed wholeheartedly, but lately I’ve been more bullish on philosophy. To be an expert on goodness is not necessarily to grasp its nature, to state necessary and sufficient conditions, or to be able to spot it in every case (just as to be an expert on taxes, for instance, doesn’t require that one grasp its nature, etc.). Rather, it’s to understand what goodness could be along with the implications of various conceptualizations. Perhaps we want more than that. And if we sought more we’d encounter deep, seemingly intractable disagreement, which you explain as a product of a kind of radical underdetermination of theory by data. But perhaps the disagreements are largely artificial, a product of career ambition (philosophers make a name for themselves by developing views that differ from those of their rivals), wishful thinking, and various social forces. Philosophical reflection can do tremendous damage to our common sense ideas of what we are, how the world works, and how we ought to live. Is it really surprising that philosophy’s more skeptical conclusions (about God, free will, morality, induction, knowledge, an external world, etc.) are met with great resistance, even within the profession? It’s possible that philosophy can take credit for numerous important discoveries (insofar as any discipline can take such credit), and that the disagreements you mention would be far less rancorous if it were otherwise.

  6. Dan, this is truly wonderful!

    I remember introducing myself to you some years ago with my concern that things like the arts and philosophy are under scrutiny (attack) as though the question of their place and value were a scientific one answerable by scientific means. This strange circumstance has only been abetted by what you note in your essay as the arts and philosophy both behaving as if they were most importantly in the business of knowledge accumulation.

    You say, “What could it mean, after all, to be an expert on goodness, or justification, or reality? One can familiarize oneself with the relevant literature, of course, and even contribute to it oneself, but there will remain profound, even categorical disagreements on every topic, and not just at the fringes of the discipline.” And this goes equally for the arts and their capacity for the limitless expressions of beauty. It is not a sort of ‘anything goes’ relativism that is being opposed to universally secure objectivity but a sort of pluralism. Both fields are truly engaged in what you describe as “the development of apt points of view”. Art has been chronically misunderstood as either necessarily universal or woefully subjective, and philosophy has been unfairly treated on that score as well. But as you point out, there are ‘apt’ points of view that are neither wholly universal nor merely subjective. Thanks for helping to make this distinction more clear.

    I was also reminded of an essay Gary Gutting wrote for the NYTimes seven years ago today. ( His concluding paragraph is the following:

    “The perennial objection to any appeal to philosophy is that philosophers themselves disagree among themselves about everything, so that there is no body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can rely. It’s true that philosophers do not agree on answers to the “big questions” like God’s existence, free will, the nature of moral obligation and so on. But they do agree about many logical interconnections and conceptual distinctions that are essential for thinking clearly about the big questions. Some examples: thinking about God and evil requires the key distinction between evil that is gratuitous (not necessary for some greater good) and evil that is not gratuitous; thinking about free will requires the distinction between a choice’s being caused and its being compelled; and thinking about morality requires the distinction between an action that is intrinsically wrong (regardless of its consequences) and one that is wrong simply because of its consequences. Such distinctions arise from philosophical thinking, and philosophers know a great deal about how to understand and employ them. In this important sense, there is body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can and should rely.”

    But I also agree with you: there is more we can and should be doing.

    Keep up the good work!

  7. Bharath Vallabha

    Wonderful essay. If only most academics would listen to you, and others like you such as Frodeman and Briggle. Very much hope they will.

    Here is why I doubt they will. Nothing to do with people’s intentions, and everything to do with institutional forces. As you have emphasized, there are many more PhDs than jobs. This puts even more pressure on distributing what jobs there are fairly, as opposed to based on social cliques, either the old boys club or the sjw in-group, etc. The trouble is evaluating works like Wittgenstein’s Investigations or Montaigne’s essays – in general evaluating philosophy as an art, as you evocatively put it – requires making precisely artistic kind of judgment calls, and so which reenforces cliques. The science model is bad for the work of philosophy, but institutionally the science model is the only one that seems even remotely “neutral”. This is an illusion, but remove the illusion and we are left with out and out battles. I think it’s great if the battles are out in the open, but those departmental battles will merge with the broader cultural battles between fox news and msnbc. Given how left leaning the profession is, this might precipitate many states pulling funding rather than feeling inspired by the philosophy done as an art. This will pull many academics back more in the direction of insularity, saying “only we can evaluate our work”.

    In order for academic phil to get out of this quagmire, there has to be a healthy philosophy culture outside academia. If the public sees lots of philosophers outside academia, that lessens the pressure on academic phil, thereby enabling it to be more artistic.

  8. The science model is bad for the work of philosophy, but institutionally the science model is the only one that seems even remotely “neutral”.

    Yes, I think that’s right.

    I don’t think this is just a philosophy problem. The science model does not work for the humanities. Using the science model for promotion and tenure decisions in the humanities is distorting those fields. It pushes them toward emphasizing narrow esoterica.

    The neutrality point is important. But I think there are other ways to achieve it. The humanities are tied in with culture, so evaluation within the humanities needs to recognize that. Perhaps they can be adequately neutral with something comparable to an affirmative action program. Music schools are also tied in with culture, but they seem to manage to keep programs that emphasize classical music along with programs that emphasize jazz and programs that emphasize various other styles of music. Some sort of affirmative action toward a multi-cultural outlook might be workable.

    Here’s an example. The primary audience for philosophy of science should be the scientists, not the philosophers. If the primary audience is other philosophers, then philosophy of science has lost its way. Realistically, I don’t think philosophers of science will have much success at publishing in science journals. However, they should be able to find ways of giving seminars and lectures in science departments. Maybe they can even setup Internet sites for communication between scientists and philosophers of science. And if those are possible, then promotion and tenure decision in philosophy departments will need to recognize the value of these kinds of outreach.

  9. alandtapper1950

    Philosophy is not “scientific”, but the feature that distinguishes it amongst the humanities is the passionate commitment to argument. A competent philosopher has to know — or at least be able to discover and present — all the main arguments in the discipline. The competing arguments may often be inconclusive but that does not diminish their importance. Being good at argument is the philosopher’s stock-in-trade. It is what makes philosophers very employable in any complex field where the answers cannot be found through experiment or calculation.

    Dan’s admirable essay may underplay this aspect of the subject, in my unscientific opinion.


  10. I don’t understand in what sense this constitutes an objection. I never suggested that philosophy isn’t passionately committed to arguments. Nor did I say that the fact that they are inconclusive diminishes their importance.

    Seems to me that this is a response to a different article.

  11. Dan,
    Well let me go a bit further….

    I think it was Rorty who said… or maybe it was Derrida… Or maybe it was just me after reading Rorty or Derrida – anyway, I’ll say it flat out:

    Philosophy is a literary genre.

    Now, the inevitable responses to this include:

    ‘Well, wait; literature is by nature fictive in nature’. – Is that really true? All the biographies and autobiographies, the naturalist essays, the informal essays, the formal essays on everything from religion to evolutionary theory, the humor of S. J. Perelman or the travelogues of Twain… Oh, come on, the history of non-fiction Literature is extensive and continually growing.

    ‘OK, but look, Philosophy concerns the deepest of issues – whether we have a mind; what that object on the table is if not *really* “an apple,” whether “close the door” is a command or a request, etc.’

    But in fact the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ (or rather turns, since the Phenomenological tradition developed its own such turn at roughly the same time as the Analytic) pretty much blasted the foundations to such ‘issues’ to smithereens. One can find the ruins left behind this blasting in Wittgenstein, or Dewey, or quine; the later Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, or Derrida – but there it is, it’s not getting pieced together by any amount of argument.

    Certain issues are indeed ‘perennial’ – but this largely because they are historically contingent. ‘What is justice?’ Could this question have been answered in the 2nd century in any way which we Moderns would recognize? ‘What is reality?’ – now this sounds as about as ‘eternal’ as one could wish. In fact, it changes era by era. Some two hundre3d years ago full understanding of ‘reality’ included recognition of the inferiority of African people; and the subordination of women to men (Hegel’s Philosophy of Right has a solid chapter explaining this, and his arch-enemy Schopenhauer agreed). As one Post-Modern critic put it, “reality isn’t what it used to be.”

    ‘Ah, but John, that’s where you really slip up – you’re talking about ‘social reality,’ and exactly because social reality is contingent, it is not the hard-bedrock reality which is only discovered in the sciences.’ Except that the hard bedrock of biological reality changed radically over the centuries (geological reality not so much, but it has changed). Otherwise a member of my species would not be writing this. In short, social reality is the inevitable and necessary epiphenomena of biological reality – so inevitable and necessary that ‘epiphenomenal’ is probably a poor word for it. I’m not saying that evolution necessarily produced homo sapiens – it could have been otherwise. But once homo sapiens was produced – all this inevitable.

    (As side note: I’ve been re-reading and writing about the Pragmatists much lately, It is worth remarking that while the Logical Positivist tradition held physics as the paradigm science – which has left it’s mark in, say, the work of the Churchlands – the Pragmatists considered the paradigm science Darwinian evolution. Because it has a story to tell; because it explains change as much as it does permanence. Because what changes – and what is most human to us – are of far greater immediate import to us than atoms floating around 12 billion years ago. – Oh wait; those atoms didn’t really mean anything until they collided and produced energy and fields of force… maybe even they have a story to tell….)

    ‘Whatever; but what differentiates philosophers from writers in other humanities is their firm commitment to *the truth* – and there we cut to the chase. Because this is not Philosophy’s back-stop; it is its problem.

    Every non-fiction text – if it be written sincerely – is committed to ‘the truth.’ There are some clever humorists (Twain, for instance) who enjoy mixing a ‘tall tale’ in with their factual reportage. And there are political commentators committed to ignoring certain facts while emphasizing others. But by and large, non-fiction texts are committed to communicating what their author’s believe to be ‘the truth.’

    What philosophers really seem to claim is 1) they can define what truth means’ and 2) having defined ‘truth’ they can act as judging arbiters of ‘truth’ in the prose of other fields (especially science). They are wrong, for a number of reasons. For now it is merely necessary to remark that scientists (including social scientists) have little use for them; that other humanities writers have virtually no use for them, and that law courts (where truth really matters) have never had a use for them.

    Montaigne was right. Philosophy is largely a private effort to get one’s own head around difficult issues of human experience – the inevitable unfairness and injustice we face; the fact that our bodies are perfect but suffer hemorrhoids and constipation and not eating enough and eating too much, and wet-dreams and loneliness, and banged-up knees and PMS. and so on and so forth. And our loved ones die before we do, or suddenly one finds oneself a mother or a father, unexpectedly, and what doe that mean? What does any of this mean?

    It’s would be churlish nonsense to suggest that the best of the Analytic tradition cannot add to such a discussion. It is equally churlish nonsense to suggest that the best of the Phenomenological tradition cannot add to this discussion. It is is equally churlish nonsense that the great traditions of Eastern philosophy have nothing to add to such a discussion.

    And since it is laughable to suggest that a good professor of philosophy should be expert in the literary histories of all the many cultural traditions of philosophy, we must allow specialization in the different traditions.

    But do we need specializations in every nook and cranny of any given tradition, even the Analytic? I don’t see that.

    The fact of the matter is that the reason we still discuss Hume and Kant and Hegel and Mill- is because they were fascinating writers, capable of profoundly persuading their readers to ideas that were really wild and outside the norm for their time of presentation. They were not the Heidegger or the Russell of their day – they were the Hemingway and the Joyce of their day. The Phenomenology of Spirit is one of the greatest poems ever written in a Western idiom – it may be completely crazy and completely false, but the study of it doe not leave one unmoved.

    ‘That’s not what philosophy is about!’ – *Yes it is!* The function of philosophy is to reshape the reader’s comprehension of the very nature of reality. And because reality is *not* permanent, and what we can know of it always changes, we always need philosophy.

    Philosophy is the literary genre with the most profound rhetorical strategies for helping us become who we are – if it would only abandon ‘the truth,’ (i.e., the quest for certainty), and address us as we are.

  12. alandtapper1950

    And I didn’t mean to suggest either of those two claims. I think I agree with everything you said. All I said is that you “may underplay” the special connection between philosophy and argument. If you had said more, you may have said something similar to what I said.

  13. Well, in that sense, I think I underplay it, but it’s deliberate. I guess I think that the argumentative side of philosophy has been emphasize enough — maybe a little too much.

  14. Bharath Vallabha

    Excellent points. Especially love the point that Hume, Kant, Hegel were more the Hemingway and Joyce of their day, and how The Phenomenology of Spirit can be crazy and false, and still move one.

    Given this, the focus it seems to me should be on creating more philosophy outside academia. Not disagreeing with anything you are saying. Just following a train of thought.

    If there were non-academic structures to help people read Plato and Kant, and discuss it, (kind of the way churches function with the religious texts, or reading groups function with fiction), then most people can in a Rortyian way be part of continuing the dialogue. The idea that one has to be initiated into this dialogue in a classroom setting is as strange as the idea that one can only read, or best read, Tolstoy or Proust or the Bible by taking a class on them. Of course, taking a class can help, and be invaluable; how it not help to talk about texts with people who dedicate their lives to them? But that is very different from saying that is the best or only way of doing it.

    This is the flip side of the point that many philosophers until the 20th century weren’t academics: namely, most of the educated class 150 years ago didn’t read even the great academic philosophers like Kant and Hegel only in class; they read them the way we now read Pinker or Dennett or Nussbaum – actually, probably with even more focus and intellectual acuity, since the non-academics back them were directly reading the cutting edge stuff, not things meant to be “introduce” what only the cognoscenti can truly understand.

    Getting academic philosophers to engage more with the public is how the problem seems from within academic philosophy. From outside academia, the question is rather different, and it is: how can we, the public, reflect philosophically using the great philosophy heritage of our traditions? It’s like the difference between the public waiting for the Church to get its act together to teach scripture better, or the public getting the ability to better engage directly with scripture.

  15. James Chilton

    Professor Kaufman writes: “The culturally jarring effects of this transformation can be seen in F.R. Leavis’s desperate, splenetic response to C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures. Leavis’s response was widely perceived as a manifesto for the institutional ascendency of the sciences at the expense of the humanities and liberal arts.”

    I understood Leavis’s response to Snow’s Rede Lecture as an intemperate protest against the institutional ascedancy being assumed by the sciences at the expense of the humanities and liberal arts.

  16. That’s right. Its backwards. Not sure if that was me or their final edit. I’ll send them an email. Thanks for catching it.

    With magazines like this, the author does not get the final edit.

  17. James Chilton

    That’s fine.

    I haven’t posted at this site until today. There’s no edit button, so I was unable to correct my mistakes after posting the comment. That’s why I posted twice and still failed to spot a spelling mistake!

  18. s. wallerstein

    Two of the most interesting philosophy podcasts I listen to are done by people who studied philosophy and dropped out, The Partially Examined Life and the Political Philosophy Podcast. In both cases they sometimes talk to academics who are recognized experts and sometimes just take on works of philosophy or topics in philosophy by themselves.

    They get the listener thinking and since they are not preparing their listener for an academic career or trying to climb the ladder of academic success themselves, they are free to express unorthodox or non-standard views on the subject.

    By the way, one great philosopher who is still read by non-philosophers (I judge from conversations, looking at bookstores and at the public library) is Nietzsche. Whatever you think about Nietzsche, you’ll have to admit that he is not afraid of taking on controversial subjects. One thing that I find with academic philosophers is that they, unlike Nietzsche, generally move within a very narrow range of respectable middle-class opinion.

    Dan K., while not comparable to Nietzsche, dares to step outside that range at times and that’s one reason that I follow him, even though on political issues at least I come from a very different culture and ideology than he does.

  19. alandtapper1950

    In response to Dan’s suggestion that philosophers might become more like novelists I’ve been trying to think of philosopher-novelists of the past. So far I have Rousseau, Godwin, George Eliot (translator of Feuerbach), Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch. And, if you like, Lewis Carroll. So there are precedents. No doubt I have missed some.

  20. Not just novelists. Essayists, theologians, and others who deploy philosophical and quasi-philosophical ideas via literary expression. Montaigne and Pascal would fall under this category. As would Erasmus, Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and others.